Ask Strong Towns, Question #12

We invite our members to submit their questions on anything that they would like our thoughts on. We’ll give you a Strong Towns answer or find an expert who can. This week, Steven from Lancaster, Pennsylvania asks:

How does the segment of ST members who are not planning professionals or government officials can learn enough to effectively advocate for Strong Towns - to become Strong Citizens. I've tried to find out what transportation and/or development plans are in play that impact my municipality and the downtown of the neighboring city. There's actually too much information! There are a bewildering number of entities, coalitions, programs, plans, and initiatives. In short, how do I find the thread within the overall knot that I can pull to start making a difference?

Becoming a successful advocate starts with being a respected and trusted voice in your community. This typically means possessing two things in above average quantities: information and relationships. Your outside viewpoint not engrossed as a professional or an official is critical to your community's discourse. There are surprisingly few citizens in a typical community looking at the big picture, and especially not through the financial angle. If you become known as the thoughtful person who can see many sides to an issue, those who you are seeking to influence will come to you instead.

In short, you do not need to know all the answers or be the town's power broker to be an impact player in advocacy.  You certainly do not need letters or titles after your name (consider yourself freed from the dogma of government silos and election pandering). Being passionate about one or two issues is the only qualification you need to begin.

There's no one way to find the magic thread in your community, so we suggest a process of making many small bets to figure it out, starting with a little scouting. 


Whether you just moved to your city or town, or you have lived there all of your life, a bit of information gathering might be helpful. It is good to either get to know your place or challenge your preconceptions a tad. Part of the success of the Strong Towns message comes through using the topics of money and finance as a way to bridge other ideological divides. A Strong Citizen can do something old fashioned -- disagree without being disagreeable. Getting out there to interact is a great way to practice using this approach together with a fiscal lens. Listen more than you speak.

First, it's best to have a baseline group or two that you openly associate with. This could be a neighborhood association, business association, civic group, or specific advocacy causes like the Sierra Club, National Rifle Association, or perhaps a more home spun group like Citizens for Roads, Asphalt and Pavement  (or not).  I'd go as far as to suggest finding two groups that maybe do not always agree with each other, because that likely means their membership is two different groups of people.  The goal here is to connect into an established network of people and understand their views of the world, even if the work is not happening directly in your local area. Chances are also good that you will find out what types of advocacy efforts are already in progress and can jump right into something you are interested in supporting.

Second, get to know your individual neighbors and things they care about. You might be surprised or it might just confirm your guesses about the place where you live. Either way, you will stand on firmer ground when talking about your community if you have real people behind your statements.

Third, go to some local meetings. Might be regularly scheduled government councils or commissions, open events from any of the groups listed earlier or just informal meetups (lots of websites for those kinds of ad-hoc interest groups nowadays). Again, you are scanning the landscape for the movers, shakers and underlying issues - and looking for opportunities to connect with people who may share Strong Towns values but may not have heard about the ideas yet. If there is a hot topic on the agenda, you may be able to send an opportunistic link to a speaker or official afterward that starts up a conversation.

Finally, it is also helpful to assess your skill set and have two or three activities you are comfortable doing that could help a cause, organize an event or just help with day to day demands. Volunteering builds respect from others and gives you a reputation as a doer - all helpful attributes to being a respected advocate.

Building Relationships

After a little recon, you can dive in and find others who you may have come across who may share similar values. This is not about being a missionary; it is to have a few people in your corner when you might need them.

Important personal relationships to have handy are with:

  • Your personal district's elected officials for local unit of government and the county/parish it resides in
  • Any elected or appointed official who oversees a related topic area (planning commission, economic development, transportation, downtown/tourism, etc)
  • Local bloggers or community boosters who may already follow issues or topics related to your interests
  • Local news reporters, radio hosts or folks at other more formal media outlets. They are excellent clearinghouses of information and are very useful to have on speed dial when you are trying to get the word out about something related to your advocacy work
  • Professionals in the various departments at your local municipality or county
  • Local business owners or business managers, especially those at popular watering holes or coffee shops people frequent.

I've lived in Minneapolis a little less than 4 years and have a handful of relationships in each group. That did not happen overnight. I've served on my neighborhood board, joined my local business association, went to happy hours with our blogger network, testified at commission meetings, and earned the respect of a few city councilpersons and my county commissioner. It is an incremental process - building trust that is.

When they ask for help, I do what I can. When I provide my opinion or have a request, they answer. This kind of working relationship is of utmost importance before a sticky advocacy issue comes up that pits one side of your community against another. In that kind of crucible, it is difficult to create trust from scratch.  Trusting relationships are a long term asset worth building and maintaining for a Strong Citizen acting as an advocate in their community.  

In short, relationships are your anti-fragile bet - you have them to be able capitalize on opportunity and ward off disaster.

Peddling Information

In today's world, there is indeed no shortage of reports gathering dust on the proverbial shelf at your local government's offices. Policies are nice, but are only words on a page. As our member Steven alluded to, sometimes there are so many words on pages of different documents that they conflict or lead to confusion. This is not uncommon. So, imagine what it is like for the people charged with trying to implement a project under such uncertain terms.

Getting an idea for how things are going with project implementation usually requires speaking with both officials and professionals in local government and advocacy groups who track the projects. Thus tapping the aforementioned relationships will help you cut through the written cornucopia of documents. But once you zero in, really get to understand what these policies say or mean.

For instance, actually know what your zoning code says about the amount of required parking attached to a particular type of land use. Most people do not realize how such rules are created or what context they operate. You do not have to memorize the whole code to pick out a few salient chunks. Perhaps the most important role a Strong Citizen can play is a local interpreter between relationships different parts of a city or town, and how those could be more Strong Towns-esqe. How does off-street parking requirements relate to the physical tax base of a city - and both to the bottom line of a tax payer?

Pick a few stories or ideas that are particularly poignant for your place and get good at telling that story to people of a variety of different backgrounds. A favorite for me is explaining to people how that a particular 3 block stretch of our neighborhood commercial corridor has 7 different zoning classifications.  Then I explain the ramifications of that - the good, bad and indifferent - for things that we might want to see in the future of that place. The person you are speaking to learns something and also has an interesting story to tell to someone else.

Sharing these in a blog format is also a great way to have your ideas heard more widely. You can gain inspiration on how to do that by reading up on the blogs in our Strong Towns Member Blog Roll

Yes, politics

I want to end with a few observations on political campaigns, whether they are for ballot questions or specific candidates. I would suggest becoming at least a volunteer in the next local political cycle. Here's why:

  • You learn how the existing power structure of your community works and who has relationships with who
  • You better understand the basic building blocks to grassroots organizing like phone banks, door knocking, electronic media, and fundraising - and how those operate in your town
  • You meet other people passionate about your community or at least a subset of it. These political animals tend to reappear over and over again, both in the next election cycle as well as the ad-hoc campaigns in between.
  • Few campaigns have people knowledgeable and willing to write good policy for a platform. If you become good at it, you will be in high demand and have great influence on the topics being discussed in the election cycle
  • You get to watch other people have successes and failures advocating in your community. You can see what works, what doesn't and have that empirical data to draw from in your own endeavors.

I have been actively involved in city council races for multiple candidates, mayoral race and county commissioner race in the last two years. We have a caucus system here in Minnesota and at the local level, the process is largely inefficient and dysfunctional.

However, it does get you to meet your neighbors and in some cases, get super quality one-on-one time with political candidates during the election season. This is gold in terms of sharing information and relationship building.  Take the good with the bad, and if nothing else, you can say you were there when things went all to hell. Your fellow advocates might have been there too and through the process of commiserating, we become closer as a community - a small stressor event even Taleb might approve of.

Which is, in the end, what we are trying to accomplish as an advocate - bring our community together to act upon a set of shared values.  If as Strong Citizens we can help bring different parts of our town together to start a dialog about the very difficult financial challenges we face, we have a chance a building a Strong Town.

There are so many of you out there with years and decades of incredible experience navigating the waters of local advocacy - please share your thoughts in the comments!